I did not watch the Miss America pageant when it aired on September 15th, but I certainly heard about the historical result and the reactions it inspired. Nina Davuluri is the first Indian-American woman to win the contest. Since the moment of the announcement, thousands of people took to Twitter and Facebook to express their opinions, unfortunately often in the form of racist and hateful comments. Some, like Stephen Colbert, have responded to the outcries with humor. When a student asked me what I thought of the hub-bub I responded with an "ughhhh.." and a sigh of frustration.
But we can do more than make fun of the reactions or dismiss them in disgust. We can use this moment to have a dialogue about racism (and sexism) in the United States. This is what we educators like to call a "teachable moment."
The silver lining in this mess is that it has brought to the forefront the ideas and beliefs about race that some Americans hold which may often go unvoiced and unchallenged. So what do we do about them? First, we can use this momentum to support a call for action to have diversity and social justice education in the USA. At the university where I teach, students in the counseling psychology graduate program are required to take diversity courses and two years ago I helped develop a diversity course that is now required for all undergraduate students. Other colleges and universities have similar requirements but it is far from universal. Diversity and social justice topics are rarely present in K-12 education in the USA (an issue I wrote about for a chapter in The Psychology of Prejudice: Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Contemporary Issues) despite the advocating efforts of educators and social scientists.
Education can increase people's knowledge in areas that appear to be limited based on the comments about Davuluri. For example, people should know that India and Iraq are not the same place; nationality and religion are different things; not all people with brown skin are terrorists. You know--the basics. We also need to have more dialogues (formally and informally) about what it means to be "American." In my work teaching children and adults about social justice I have found that many White people living in the USA think American=White. They rarely think about their own ethnicity or ethnic identity development (or the fact that all White people's ancestors immigrated to the USA). Some tell me that they don't have an ethnicity because they are "just American." They hold these beliefs because no one has ever talked to them about whiteness or taught them about ethnicity. This invisible norm of Whiteness and White privilege are the bedrock upon which countless racist policies are built. We need to work harder to dismantle this. Scholars and educators (like Lisa Spanierman) are doing amazing work about white identity development. Let's get it out there.
Second, we can use these moments on Facebook and Twitter to confront the racist comments others make and possibly change their thinking. One of my students shared with me the way in which he challenged his friend who posted racist remarks on Facebook about the new Miss America. He told her how he felt about what she wrote and encouraged her to think about things in a new way. Imagine how much change could happen if every person who made a racist remark was challenged by one of their friends or family members.
Finally, we can use this situation to open a conversation about beauty pageants. Yup. I went there. If you have read my blog before, you probably are not surprised.
Just in case you missed the news buried among the stories about the Miss American pageant, this week the French Senate approved a ban on beauty pageants for girls younger than 16. The ban is in response to growing concerns about the consequences of the sexualization of girls. The APA report on the sexualization of girls supports the view that hypersexualization of girls and young women can have dire effects on physical and mental well-being. Extensive research on the objectification of women demonstrates how destructive this sexualization can be for women of all ages. France has passed similar measures in recent years (one regarding minimum BMI for models, another addressing underage models in ad campaigns) in their work to increase gender equality. In the USA, we have gotten Toddlers and Tiaras and thongs for girls.
I am glad that so many people were upset by the racism displayed in response to the Miss America pageant. But I wish more people would be equally concerned about the objectification of women that occurs in a contest that judges women based on their appearance in swimwear and evening gowns. Equal opportunities to be sexual objectified should probably not be our goal as a society.
Let's aim higher.
EMPOWERTAINMENT aims to take a critical look at media in regards to how gender and women/girls are portrayed. From popular articles, videos, and websites, to original submissions, we want to not only examine the media and its relation to gender, but help shift it.